The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal democrats react to TechUK’s manifesto to turn Britain into a digital leader.
Britain’s immigration policy is hurting its ability to innovate, according to major political figures supporting a trade association’s manifesto to boost the UK’s tech industry.
TechUK gained cross-party political support for its manifesto on how to turn Britain into a digital leader this week, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats criticised the Coalition’s immigration policy as harmful to the UK’s ability to attract top talent.
Both Labour’s shadow business minister, Iain Wright MP, and Lib Dem peer Lord Timothy Clement-Jones CBE support TechUK’s call for a "smart" immigration policy.
The manifesto, ‘Securing our digital future’, urges the next Government to "have a smart immigration policy that is open to and welcomes entrepreneurs and future wealth creators".
Its key tenets are to reinstitute the two-year post study work visa, remove caps on graduate entrepreneur visas and extend exceptional talent visas beyond startups to other firms like SMBs.
Lord Clement-Jones said the Coalition partners were divided over the issue: "We have really got to take a new look about how we treat overseas students.
"We really believe you can’t chase unrealistic targets in reducing net migration at the expense of growth in the digital economy. We pledged to remove students from the net migration targets given their temporary status [as citizens]."
Meanwhile, Labour’s Iain Wright added: "We want those people who have gained skils in the UK to stay here and use those talents to set up businesses and create employment opportunities."
David Cameron has pledged to reduce net migration to less than 100,000 a year by 2015, while the Office for National Statistics estimated that net migration to the UK was 212,000 in 2013.
Ed Vaizey MP, Tory minister for culture and digital industries, was tight-lipped on the topic at TechUK’s launch event, but said the manifesto had broad support from his party.
"A lot of the recommendations were extremely sensible, I think we’re doing quite a lot of them," he said.
One area Vaizey did focus on was addressing the growing tech skills gap affecting Britain. TechUK wants parties to commit to upping the average £175 per school budget for computer science lessons, recommending an extra £20m to aid implementation of new curriculums.
"Skills is something we feel very strongly about and we are trying to make progress," claimed Vaizey. "There is a big skills gap and part of the reason there’s a big skills gap in the UK is there’s a big demand because we are, in my view, the tech hub of Europe.
"We need to keep working on it which is why the Information Economy Council is looking at skills and the creative industry council is looking at skills."
Labour’s Wright said: "Addressing the productivity gap widening between the UK and the rest of our economic rivals is key. Key to that is embracing technology and thinking about long-term infrastructure needs."
Startups and SMBs
TechUK wants government to double funding for the Small Business Research and Innovation Fund (SBRI) to £400m by 2020, to help the body boost links between government and SMBs.
It also called on the next Government to create a digital trade czar based in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to oversee an increase in tech exports, aiming to at least double their value to £62bn come 2020.
Meanwhile, the manifesto claims too many startup clusters are based around London and South East London.
It identified burgeoning startup clusters in Bristol, Cardiff, Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester as in need of Government help to grow,
Lord Clement-Jones said: "The banks are failing us in a major way. The issue we’re all agreed on is it is later stage finance where we’re well behind NASDAQ and Silicon Valley. I don’t think we have yet cracked it so there’s a lot of work to do.
"Frankly we do need much more competition [in finance], new entrants into the banking sector and that is a manifesto commitment from us to encourage more choice and a variety of competitors in banking and encouraging alternative finance models."
He added that tech clusters should get more direct powers through devolution of Whitehall decision-making to cities themselves.
Wright said British startups are not expecting to grow into huge companies like their Silicon Valley cousins.
"We don’t scale up our companies as much as we should," he claimed. "I hear people in the sector say not ‘I’m going to be the next Google’, but ‘When can I sell out to Google?’. That’s a huge generalisation but I am incredibly interested in this and I think this needs to be a key priority of the next Government."
Vaizey referred to the Connected Digital Economy Catapult opening in November, which has cross-party support to help startups speed their development to get products to market much faster.
"It has four main focuses to start with, personal data privacy and trust, so again looking at the issues raised by the TechUK manifesto, accelerating integration of diverse datasets, and city demonstrators [for] smart cities," he said.
Neil Crockett, CEO of the initiative, said in a separate comment: "We believe the answer to the UK’s ongoing digital success lies in convening the many existing initiatives and stakeholders across the UK digital economy – this includes the growing family of innovation clusters around the UK, start-ups and SME’s, larger enterprises and academia. Collaboration will unlock this economic success – not purely government investment."
He hopes the scheme will have helped 10,000 UK organisations by 2018 and to have generated £365m in economic value.